Modern-day Syria and 'Antigone': Syrian women find strength through acting

How female Syrian refugees use an ancient Greek play to reconcile their own tragic pasts. 

AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File
FILE - In this Thursday March 14, 2013 file photo, a Syrian refugee girl carries her sister, as she listens to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, chief Antonio Guterres, not seen, during his visit to a Syrian refugee camp, in Ketermaya village southeast of Beirut, Lebanon. The U.N. warns that Syria’s war is creating a generation of children who will grow up illiterate and filled with hate.

For Syrian women, "Antigone" is more than an ancient Greek tragedy.

It’s a way to come to terms with a brutal war that has torn apart their country and families. In a production put on by Syrian refugee women – none of whom have ever acted professionally – the women have chosen the play as a way to represent their stories.

“The play 'Antigone' was an opportunity for us to voice everything inside of us,” Wisam Succari, an actress in the production told NPR. “It’s a story which takes place in the context of a war and we, too, as Syrians, have fled a war.” 

The production began running in December 2014 and was performed in Lebanon by an all-women cast of roughly 30 Syrian women. Most of the women are mothers and many are widows. And though they are relating to a play written by Sophocles 2,000 years ago, the themes from the play still resonate today. 

Many of the women, who are now displaced in Beirut, still carry their stories close to the surface. The night before the play opened, a Syrian Palestinian refugee sat barefoot onstage, recounting the day she returned to her house in the Yarmouk camp in Syria after it was bombed. Beside her were the shoes she wore the day she visited the camp.

The plot of Antigone has obvious divergences from modern day Syria. Antigone was a princess in the aftermath of a bloody civil war. When her brothers are killed and her uncle inherits the throne, she defies his orders by burying one of her brothers who’d fought for the enemy. 

But Antigone’s themes run deep: it is a play that probes into justice, human goodness, and the devastating impact civil war has on family. The themes have resonated loudly enough to bring international attention to the production.  And the question of how to do the right thing, even in the face of self-destruction, is a narrative Syrian women are all too familiar with. 

“I lived this story,” Muntaha told the BBC. “My brother was detained, taken away by the regime in Syria. I think he is dead and I want to bury him but I can’t. I don’t know where his body is.”

The play was produced by the Syrian producer Itab Azzam and was supported by private donors. The Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Attar wrote the play, but many of the women improvised by adding their own narratives into the production. 

Although production of the play has ended in Lebanon, many of the women have become activists – bridging together the world of art with their lived realities. 

Other refugees have found similar ways to heal and start a dialogue to reconcile with their pasts. In Minneapolis, for example, a group of Somali poets founded "Ka Joog" ("stay away") to mentor Somali youth through standup poetry. 

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